Academic Insight

What’s Wrong with Our “Bilingual” Teaching & Learning

Around one year ago, I wrote a letter to the senior administration, expressing my concerns over the teachers, students and some other relevant issues in our university. Recently after a series of reflections upon my own experience over the year, I realized that in fact my concerns of last year have not been mitigated much and to some extent the situation is staggering. Therefore, I decide to readdress these issues one by one in the forthcoming days to my fellow students via Qianjian and hope my concerns can also correspond to theirs.

I believe most of the students chose this university not just because of the brand of CUHK, but more because of the credibility and quality behind this brand. Among all those fascinating assurance, “bilingual teaching” is one of the key reasons for which many students decided to come here. A lot of us dreamed of having a learning environment in which we can well get the hang of English in four years. However, after almost one year of study for year one students and almost two years of study for sophomore students, are we still confident about this kind of expectation? To what extent our English has got improved over the past year or past two years? What kind of competitive advantage do we really have over the students in other top universities in China in terms of English? In this article, I want to find out what is wrong with our bilingual teaching and learning.

I was nervous, maybe so were many other students, during the summer before officially becoming a student in an English teaching environment. The nervousness reached its peak in the first week of year one. However, it turned out that it was not difficult to understand the English of teachers in class. Maybe the period of having difficulty varies among students, but most of us can cope with it in 3 months at most. However, does this mean we can adapt to any English-teaching environment in the world? Not really. We can just find an open class available online offered by some good universities like UCB or NYU. Are we 100% confident to be able to understand at least 80% of the contents and take notes promptly without any subtitles on the screen?

To be a qualified student in a real English-teaching environment, one has to be proficient in reading, listening, writing and speaking. Based on my observation, almost no students except international students in this university can be really good at all of these. By saying “good”. I do not mean “perfect”. “Good” is the level with relatively few mistakes and is enough to survive us or even succeed us in a real English-teaching environment. Since there are a large number of students aspiring to go oversee for postgraduate study, “good” English is necessary. However, the truth is a lot of students have not even reached the entry level yet, not to mention being proficient in using English.

It is indeed that not all students have the interest or need in learning English very well and not all students have the aspiration of studying abroad. But what if the infrastructure and environment in the university are good enough for promoting the use of English as well as for assuring a high level of English for each individual after four years’ study, are we willing to take it?

Why not?

Under that circumstance, improvement of every student’ English ability is just a matter of time. As the Chinese adage goes, “When water flows, a channel is formed”.

So what does the current dilemma of our bilingual teaching derive from? From my perspective, on the one hand, it is because of the lack of work and practice which is mainly due to the lack of motivation for students. On the other hand, there are certain shortcomings of our current bilingual teaching pedagogy, making it unable to effectively motivate students and offer practical means.

In terms of our own efforts in learning English, there is never shortcut as many of us have been told. In this sense, considerable efforts and devotion of students are inevitable. There is only three- hours English lecture each week with little reading material. I won’t believe that a person can count on these three hours and several short essays of only a few hundred words to learn English well. To a large extent, we are still trapped in the traditional senior high model that only rote memorization of vocabularies and exam paper can really do us favor.

You can pause for a little while now and recall how many new vocabulary you have accumulated over the past year’s study and how many words you can now use proficiently in your essay and spoken English. Five hundred for the first questions and five thousand for the latter one? Is it enough?

I am not here to validate how much vocabulary we have to master, but it is definitely not enough if you find you’re reading slowly, find it hard to squeeze out words when writing an essay or find yourselves only able using rudimentary words. Trust me, these problems also face me without question. In our class, there is little room for effective discussion in English and most of us are reluctant to speak out. In the course of time, it is harder for us to get rid of frequent mistakes of syntax and grammar in our spoken English and written English.

In other aspects such as reading, the stage most of us are currently at is pretty “primitive”. Average books we read in one year may be less than five(both in English or Chinese) per person besides the curriculum books, while in contrast the required or non-required books in other foreign top university can be counted in dozens. If we are much too comfortable with our pitiful reading quantity, how can we survive the intense English learning requirement in the future and how can we equip ourselves as a knowledgeable person in such an information era?

Although on the issue of learning English, students share a considerable portion of responsibility, it is not my initial intention to comment too much on the work of ourselves, but to figure out why, in such an excellent bilingual university as it claims to be, we are not having the expected outcome from the pedagogy. There must be something wrong or at least inappropriate.

First of all, I want to address the seemly non-correspondence between our English course and the real English level of us students. For quite a long time, I have been defending our English course and the attentiveness of our teachers when someone tried to question the course. I used to say that learning English is more a personal pursuit and one can not rely solely on teachers. I also argue that we need to transform our way of learning and be more adaptive. Frankly Speaking, I really have learned a lot from the previous courses and I thank my teachers much. However, there can be more and there should be more to do.

It’s apparent that a significant gap exists between what we truly need and what we are being taught. In current teaching model, deliberate accumulation of vocabulary and elaborate grammar analysis are no longer explicitly emphasized. Instead, we skip the speaking part and go straightforward to the writing. When you ask a year two students randomly about their view on English course, they are likely to say they are unable to memorize so many tedious concepts in class. Even for a simple essay structure already taught in year one, I can still get asked by somebody in the year two. I am not saying writing is not important – it has indeed always been an extremely difficult part in both Chinese and English. But we are not native speakers, so is it practical or at least reachable for many of us to adapt to the difficult writing part in the limited lecture hours? Shouldn’t we have a more customized teaching pedagogy instead of being benchmarked against certain standards?

Nonetheless, there is no excuse to lower the standards at will. What I appeal for is a more practical teaching pedagogy suitable for us student, which can make us confident enough to say I do have learned a lot and confident enough to speak English out loud. The fulfillment or adjustment of the English course relies not only on the front-line teacher and students, but also on those who design the course and senior administration who aspire to promote our university to an international level. Maybe only when our university become a really international one, it is much likely that current teaching pedagogy will be appropriate.

The second point I want to address is that, in addition to the English course, the so called “bilingual teaching” also just perform practically with little function for major courses. The current dilemma is that most teachers for major courses are Chinese, adding up to more than 80%. During the only three hours’ lecture we may have the opportunity to be in an English-alike teaching environment while the illusion soon disappears once the class is over. My professors or lecturers are all devoted and professional teachers with a remarkable personality, from whom I have gained a lot of knowledge. However, it is no doubt that English has hindered them from delivering more information and hindered us from receiving the message effectively. If teachers are unable to keep coping with course-related issues in English, there will be little incentive for students to use English. In the course of time, there will be another vicious circle.

I just learned from the official website of the LSE that language exam certificate such as IETLS and TOFEL can be exempt if the previous degree is taught in English. Then I started wondering whether our university can be recognized by other universities in terms of bilingual teaching. If so, why do we use English during less than 1% of time in our daily campus life? If so, why are there dozens of students signing up for those language exams? Isn’t it the obligation of the university to equip us with necessary English skills, offer us and other universities that the firm assurance that we are really capable of using English proficiently? How come the claim of “bilingual” and the real situation do not match? How come we are gradually accustomed to current conditions and unaware of the disparity with other top English universities?

I am a little bit worried.

In fact, there are already many universities in mainland China offering courses taught in English. If we just listen and speak English in that three hours, what is the superiority of our so called “bilingual teaching” pedagogy? Dose it still make sense to us? Does it still appeal to the potential students of our university? These probably are questions requiring deep thoughts of our senior administration and relevant teachers.

At last, I would like to address the overall atmosphere of English learning in our campus. Ever since the enrollment, there have been different kinds of endeavor in our university dedicated to promote using English, such as English Club, English Animator, and SALL. As one of the core members in the English Animator in year one, I have always considered it a pity that not many students can really preserve using English and the scale of EA has always been limited to a certain amount of enthusiasts. As for SALL and English Club, I don’t think they matter significantly based on my observation. The reason why we need to promote English is that most of us have not yet reached the entry level and we have to endeavor to prepare ourselves.

Currently our university is on an upward trend of developing, with more facilities installed and good reputation built up. There is doomed to be more attention to our university from society and other universities. It is also predictable that the percentage of international students will increase dramatically in the forthcoming years. Then, are we still going to be comfortable with the status quo? Is it still appropriate to overlook the current dilemma in bilingual teaching and spoil international students with weird English emails or broken spoken English in the future.

Now, it is the time, as the end of spring semester is approaching, for senior administration and we students to reflect upon what was going on over the past year and what adjustment is in need. In terms of bilingual teaching and learning, we need to realize what kind of dilemma we are in right now. I am pretty sure not many people want to be ordinary students in an ordinary university. That’s why we have to keep adjusting.

I hope the senior administration will have a thoughtful consideration about this issue and stop overlooking the potential negative impacts. I also hope my fellow students can be well aware of what they are pursuing and do whatever they need to prepare themselves. Personally, I have been dedicated to the development of this university and will keep on with firm belief.

It is the right time and we are able to make everything possible.


  1. In this article, I mean no offense to anyone, just stating the facts and my own understanding.
  2. Frankly speaking, bilingual teaching should not be just about the language itself but more about the different way of thinking and perception, which I consider to be a weak link in current teaching and learning environment. For the sake of length, I didn’t address this explicitly in this article. I hope next time I will review this problem or somebody else will be willing to take the chance of exploring more on this issue.
  3. I want to particularly mention that I decided to write this article publicly instead of sending it to the senior administration confidentially. It is mainly because only with your joint effort and voice can the power be amplified and effective adjustment be taken as soon as possible. Since I am a sophomore in SME, all my evaluation is based on my own experience. Namely, I have no specific comments on the teaching in SSE and year one English course. However, I believe bilingual teaching and learning should be a common issue facing most of the students and faculty at this university. Therefore, I sincerely hope my article can arouse your further thinking towards our teaching and learning. This is in order to save us twists and turns along the 4 years’ journey.
  4. For so long I have been hearing a variety of comments on our university’s issues. Despite all these feelings, not a lot of them have ever been effectively transformed into actions no matter whether the feelings are objective or not. I hope the topic “bilingual teaching and learning” is just the starting point. More comments based on my own experience are coming soon. It will be of much delight for me to have you join me rekindling the community’s enthusiasm for expressing unique and well-grounded opinions about the university’s affairs on Qianjian.
  5. Special Thanks to Fangwen Lin for deliberate revision and Alan Chen for edit.

“What’s Wrong with Our “Bilingual” Teaching & Learning”上的18条回复

It is a very good article, with proficient English! However we should both master in Chinese and English. These are like two wings of a bird and two wheels of a carriage. We cannot survive in a Chinese culture without proficient Chinese skills. I partly agree with your opinion of promoting English environment, but we should also focus on Chinese. A thing turns to its opposite if we push it too far, complete Westernization is not feasible. BTW, I really admire your English level. Your are my example of learning English.

You said ‘A thing turns to its opposite if we push it too far.’ However, in my view we can’t push it too far and put too much emphasis on English. We have spent too much time speaking Chinese. Speaking more English in this period won’t make us get any regression in Chinese. I also do not think of promoting English environment firmly as complete or excessive westernization. But of course, we also need to continue to read, learn and appreciate English.

Please don’t regard a disabled English environment as a purpose to improve Chinese.Does that really work?Both languages will not be get improved if we always keep the current situation.





This article is exactly consistent with my concerns over the education system in this university. The ENG courses are not that efficient. The thing is, the English atmosphere never exists. Mostly I learn English all by myself. Actions should be taken now!

I think it’s interesting that many students are still feel uncomfortable to speak English in daily life, including me. It seems it still take time for us to adapt the bilingual environment. But it appears that we are on our own

Cannot agree more! Indeed, the university lacks of both taught and used English. However, it seems that even though the article is meant to be addressed to the students, most of the complaints are concerned the administration and teaching staff of the university. Just a reminder for everyone: the emails and information received from the university administration is always in both English and Chinese, while the information provided by most of the students’ organizations are exclusively in Chinese language, so are the big events (Even the invitation for the BP debate workshop). I believe, the students themselves should show the initiative first, since even the staff isn’t confident about our English level circulating even a few simple sentences info in Chinese.

If everything stays the way it is now, the future international students with no Chinese language skills whatsoever will suffer a lot. I can tell it as a peeson with the weakest Chinese in the university for now…
Totally agree with the authors and wish everyone reads the article. Also, many thanksfor bringing the topic up!

As an sse student, I strongly suggest that our Major Course teachers should be native English speakers,not Chinese teachers who know some English. The Major Course class account for large proportion of our class time in a week, and should be expected to be a great opportunity for us to polish our English. But I don’t really feel we students get much improvement in English during these classes after almost 2 semester, since the teachers are not native speakers.

To emphasize the importance, let me give an example. When I’m doing the exercise, I’m reading the question in English and the I’m thinking how to do the question in chinese.How come?Why would it happen after I have spent almost one year learning my major courses in English? Especially I do have read the textbook words by words. The crucial point is that the kind of English in our textbook is not enough.

The textbook kind English they’re rigorous and complete in gramma, but when we’re thinking the questions in our head, the sentences flowing in our heads are no like the English style in the textbook, you agree right? we need a kind of short-cut language which may be not complete in gramma but is efficient and quick for us to think, because when we’re doing the questions, we want it to be quick.

And it’s not that thinking in English is that difficult, it’s just when i want to try thinking in English I find I’m at a loss of words, and it’s not the professional words that is making me struggle, it’s just I don’t know which words I can use to express my feelings, my logic flow when I’m doing the questions, these kind of words may be exactly the most frequent words we have seen or hear, they are simple, helpful but yet difficult to be mastered because we don’t receive this kind of training at all.

However, this can be easily solved if we have English native teachers explaining things to us, we can learn thinking questions in English subconsciously, because we’re exposed to that kind of language that is useful when thinking, which can’t be acquired at all from the textbook, let alone listening to a Chinese teacher who himself may be thinking in Chinese.

A typical situation is when a Chinese teacher deducing a formula, he writes down a line and then just say ‘you get this’,writes down another line, say ‘then you get this’ again. But if the teacher is an English native speaker, he’ll be able to describe what’s happening all in his mind right now when he is thinking the problems using the kind of descriptive and impressive language. We hear how the teachers think in English, we absorb it , and then we can do it ourselves, thinking in English.

I believe if it were native English teachers who taught us for almost 2 semester, my English would be far better than my English level now, which doesn’t seem to have improved much compared with last year.

Good point on ‘thinking in English’, it should be one of the most critical goals in English learning.
However, I doubt whether only native speakers can ‘describe what’s happening all in his mind right now when he is thinking the problems using the kind of descriptive and impressive language’. From my perspective, that’s more about the teaching style and ability of a professor, instead of whether he’s a native speaker. We do have professor who can express his idea clearly in spoken English, I assume you can agree with me on that one.
So, the best case scenario is we can have academically successful professor who’s also a native English speaker. But we, as students, should develop the ability to cope with the teaching of English speakers of different kinds, native or non-native. After all, having native English teachers teaching courses other than ENG in an university in China isn’t really that easy…
By the way, to ‘think in English’, a helpful thing to do is to discuss academic questions with our fellow students in English, but how often do we get to do so? Honestly, even for the ENG course I’m attending, most of the discussions between our fellow students are in Chinese.

I can’t agree with some of your point in your first paragraph. Assuming you’re right, why would most students still lack the kind of really great English level which we should be expected to reach after having studied in the school for almost 2 semesters?And many students still feel uncomfortable when they’re asked to do research in English website instead of Baidu? You can’t say it’s because we students don’t work hard, because clearly you can see many students working really hard who are driven by all kinds of deadline a week after another.

The truth is we still can’t feel free to express ourselves in English, from the Non-native teachers we simply can’t get enough improvement in English.

From my very limited understanding of the phrase “be doomed to do”, this phrase should be used to describe something bad that is definite to happen